English Version | Cooking in A without C

05 Jun 2021
By Nuno Miguel Dias

Classical music denotes good taste. Pop is velvety to the palate. Heavy Metal, on the other hand, might have perhaps a harsher texture, just like when there are lumps on mashed potatoes. No, it’s not on these terms that we conclude that music and the pleasures of the palate might be intertwined. There is an entire gastro-musical trip journey, from historical curiosities to technical terms, that must be discovered. With headphones, please.

Classical music denotes good taste. Pop is velvety to the palate. Heavy Metal, on the other hand, might have perhaps a harsher texture, just like when there are lumps on mashed potatoes. No, it’s not on these terms that we conclude that music and the pleasures of the palate might be intertwined. There is an entire gastro-musical trip journey, from historical curiosities to technical terms, that must be discovered. With headphones, please.

It's not quite the classical dilemma/ puzzle of the egg, the chicken, and what might have come first (which we will clear up by saying that dinosaurs came way before the chicken, and already reproduced in an oviparous way). Everything indicates that man may have started to rhythmically hit hollow logs with sticks (which is held as the beginning of musical creation), long before having discovered fire. Meaning, in a glimpse of absolute futurism, pre-history is made of people eating raw food, but with drumming for ambiance. It’s like going out for an all-you-can-eat sushi fest. In fact, neither does the moment when “music was discovered” correspond to the formation of a band with elaborate percussions where one fills the musical tempos of another, nor does the discovery of fire mean that we went straight into the making of a smoked mammoth entrecôte over mashed yams and a reduction of white mallow. And yet, there is no doubt that food and music are intimately connected. After all, cooking is an art. And there is no form of art that can’t be attached to another. Besides the annoying clichés that act like the Portuguese property law for restaurant owners (why do all beach bars have to have reggae, all the touristy places have to play the “fados” of Mariza, and every so-called “fancy” restaurant have to put on that kind of jazz where every musician plays whatever they want and the singer unfolds in a series of “bedumpetátárirubadimbadumbadá” to the point where we feel slightly on edge and don’t even know why?), there are numerous situations where the preparation of a dish and its tasting are, in fact, indissociable from music. That vast range of opportunities is what follows.

I am a privileged man. I know very well some of the cuisines that are concealed from mere mortals. Paradoxically, that came about, in most cases, as “part of the job”. Chefs that don’t have time to be interviewed during a pause in the tasting of their creations, at the table, with a glass of wine they chose since it went well with a relaxed conversation (which, fortunately, has also happened). I had no other choice but to follow them around, with my notebook in hand (recording is useless in one of the noisiest work environments on the planet), pen jotting down the hieroglyphs that would be intercepted by the classics “are those cheeks done?” or “Those vegetables need to go out, I don’t have all night”, and other flourishes of garlic, cloves and everything in between. I am, thus, in an extremely comfortable position that has been earned through years of in loco observation, to affirm that being a chef is like being a maestro, a comparison that varies only in the size of the orchestra, being that this fact won’t dictate the quality of their conductor all the same. Because a maestro’s quality is not determined by, if on one day, he directs the complex opera Walkürenritt by Wilhelm Richard Wagner, or if on another, he decides to go back to the minimalism of Coro à la bocca chiusa from Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, that amazingly beautiful moment in classical music that comes down to what the name entails plus a few violins in pizzicato (strings pulled with your fingers) and some other flutes, in adagio, a kind of less is more that, if we were to draw a parallelism between music and food, we would have to opt for a dish of codfish and chickpeas topped by sliced boiled eggs, raw onion cut into small cubes, salsa sprinkled on top and a green thread of olive oil from a private harvest. In that case, vinegar would be that part in which one of the violinists makes a mistake and plays an F sharp instead of D minor and the audience (or taster) frown their eyes until wrinkles that we didn’t even suppose existed appear (and no, it’s not a matter of taste). Let’s go deeper then, into this dichotomy chef/ maestro, drawing the parallelism kitchen/ opera.

In the observant’s optic, meaning, facing the group of musicians that makes an orchestra, and out a question of acoustics (that today diverges a lot from the one find in churches, whose central nave obeyed certain rules that allowed for a genius propagation of sound, and according to which the most beautiful works have been created, with the maximum example of Antonio Vivaldi – don’t stop at the Four Seasons and go listen, for the love of those it is dedicated to, to the Eja Mater, Fons Amoris part of the piece Stabat Mater), the orchestra is organized in a “fan” shape. The maestro stands at its base, in the center, waving his wand (that works as the continuation of his arm so that all musicians can see it and that nowadays is made of plastic, but before was a violin’s arch, just as spoons used to be wood before the restrictions of ASAE). Following the maestro, still at the base of this half-moon-shaped “fan”, the strings. To the left, the sopranos, meaning, the first and second violins (thirty-one in total), being that immediately to the side of the maestro one finds the spalla, the last player to come in before the conductor and responsible for the tuning of all those that constitute the orchestra (meaning, he is the sous-chef) and, higher than any other, there is the harp. To the right, the woodwind family, with its twelve violas, twelve cellos and eight basses. One “step” above, to the center (in between the stringed instruments), the wood section. To the left the sopranos (the flutes) and to the right the trebles (oboes, English horns, clarinets, bass clarinets, bassoons and contrabassoons). After these, with a little extension to the right to the brass family of the trombone and tuba, the metal section, with its trumpets and horns. The summit of sections is percussion (timpani, marimba, xylophone, bells, drums and cymbals). Did you miss the saxophone (whether the sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone or bass)? Yeah, we’re not talking about a philharmonic, but of a classical orchestra, which are two very different things, much like the kitchen of a gourmet restaurant will hardly have a Bimby (the saxophones reading this will have to forgive me, but I know that, invariably, they all must be jazz connoisseurs, so I don’t know how this would be offensive).

Things are not that different in a kitchen. There are posts occupied by those who dominate “the service” that post is dedicated to. It is the so-called “Brigade System” created by Auguste Escoffier in order to streamline and simplify the work in hotel kitchens. The chef idealizes the menu, which might be either seasonal or daily. According to this, they are responsible for coordinating much more than the confection of dishes. They control the pantry and shopping. They don’t always cook or fix their team’s mistakes (especially when the kitchen is more “aligned”), but still overlook the procedures. The sous chef (or sub chef, but here we will opt for the terms of the French high cuisine) fills in for the chef when they are not present. Besides that, they control the arrival of groceries and their corresponding storage, are responsible for the hygiene of the workplace and the preparation of everything that comes before the commencement of daily activities, being that they’re the ones opening and closing the kitchen every single day. The chef sauté is in charge of sautéed dishes and their sauces, which is different from the chef saucier, who is responsible for the dressings (whether base dish gravy or its derivatives), bases and soups. The poissonier deals with fish and is responsible for “handling” them, and of course, their confection and sauces. The rôtisseur is in charge of the roasts and some dish gravies that might come from them. It is a position that might be combined with being in charge of the grilling and frying procedures if those are needed to finish off the roasts. The grillardin deals only with grilling and the friturier with all fried production. The entremetier on the other hand, is responsible for all the vegetables, hot palate-cleansers, soups, pasta and eggs (in a traditional brigade system, soups are made by the potager and vegetables are the responsibility of the legumier). The tournant is traditionally called “the relief cook”, meaning, they are where the chef decides they are most needed on the spot. The garde-manger is responsible for all cold dishes, salads and palate-cleansers, as well as pâtés. The boucher does the cutting of all meat and the pâtisser is the baker, responsible for all sweets and desserts, who normally works removed from all the rest. The aboyeur takes in the orders and “sings” them to the kitchen. They are the last ones to check the plate before placing it on the customer’s table if that operation is not being fulfilled by the chef or sous chef. The commis is the apprentice. They work for every responsible of all posts in order to learn their functions, which is different from the plounger, who is a helper and in charge of cleaning all kitchen supplies and the space in general, clearing it of all garbage. It is from a system like this (or remotely similar) that the most fabulous palate symphonies are born. But this thing of connecting music, that form of art we can’t live without, and the confection of food, that form of art we can’t survive without, comes a long way.

Gioachino Rossini (or Joaquin Reddish, freely translated) was born in Pesaro, on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, to a family of musicians, in the year 1792. At six years old he already played in his father’s band (who was also a slaughterhouse inspector, thus I suspect that already in that time music was not a very dependable livelihood) and, already dominating the harpsichord, at 14 he started attending the city’s musical high school to study cello. After receiving an award by the Bologna Conservatoire (a city where he was known as “Il Tedeschino” – the Little German -, due to his admiration for Mozart and Haydn), his first opera, La Cambiale di Matrimonio, was produced in Venice. Thirty-eight more followed that one, amongst them the famous The Barber of Seville, until he announced, at only 37 years old, that his musical career was over so he could dedicate himself… that’s right: to cooking. He immortalized the recipe Tornedos Rossini (the back end of a veal loin), which was created in his homage by Marie-Antoine Carême (the chef of kings and the king of chefs, responsible for the creation of the Haute Cuisine Française) and that today is held as one of the most iconic dishes of French Cuisine (Rossini died in Paris in 1968), in which one can find small pieces of butter-fried meat, topped by a slice of foie gras, covered with Madeira’s wine sauce and decorated with truffle chips. Those who know say, which is the same as saying “those who were close to him left in writing”, that Rossini was good-tempered, with a joke always ready and loaded. One of his most famous ones is: “I’ve only cried three times in my life. On the premiere of my first opera, while listening to my contemporary Niccoló Paganini on the violin, and when a basket with a stuffed turkey fell off my boat, on the way to a picnic”, which alludes to how close that snack was to the lord, beyond the portraits that bluntly illustrate it. This Paganini person, the violin Rossini cried listening to, was his foodie buddy. One of his creations, Genovese raviolis with ragout, was handwritten by him and is now one of the most valuable documents on the Library of the North American Congress. What is it doing there instead of in Italy? The same that Mac&Cheese does in the “Italian” restaurants in New York. Vicenzo Bellini, another consecrated Italian composer of the operas La Sonnambula, Norma e I Puritani, cooked, one of those days, a dish of pasta with fresh tomatoes, eggplant and basil for the cinema director Nino Mortoglio. He liked it so much that, at the end of the carbs overload that evening (because Paleo diets were not that trendy back then) screamed “It’s a Norma”, invocating the masterpiece of the composer now playing the role of chef. Still today that dish is known as Pasta alla Norma. Enrico Caruso, the most famous tenor of all times, has a dish baptized with his name. Salsa Caruso, a traditional recipe from Uruguay, became globally known as Sauce Caruso since, during the tours in South America, the singer demanded that that creamy mix of onion, prosciutto, cheese, nuts and mushrooms was paced over his pasta. But so that one doesn’t assume that Italians are the only ones constructing this dichotomy “Music / Eating”, let us move on to a Polish man settled in Paris, the excellent Frédéric Chopin, whose favorite dish was the Polish zrazy, a sort of rolled beef stuffed with eggs and vegetables. As it was quite difficult to find it in the French capital, more inclined towards local gastronomy, he would have to resort to the house of Doctor Johann Malfatti (again the Italians), who managed to reproduce the traditional dish, satisfying his craving. Proof of that is the correspondence he kept with his Polish friends, where he addressed these evenings and music more thoroughly. The Austrian Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, on the other hand, was a well-known eater of liver croquettes with sauerkraut, typical of the Salzburg region. Eric Satie, the consecrated French pianist, only ate white foods: rice, turnips, cheese and even chopped bones. Igor Stravinsky used to go to local cafes with a pot of honey with which he sweetened his tea.

If we want to approach this theme in a more contemporary way, all we have to do is ask the organizers of concerts and summer festivals which are the most extravagant demands of today’s musicians. The band Korn, for example, ask for four bottles of organic apple vinegar juice with cinnamon, a basket of organic bread, peanut butter and strawberry jam, wholewheat cinnamon buns with raisins, organic fruits and vegetables, ginger for juices, two packs of biological sprouts, two boxes of chocolate bonbons and a centrifuge juicer. The Stereophonics, on the other hand, ask that, throughout the day, they have 24 bottles of water that must come from British springs (Brecon or Highland Springs), Orangina, vitalized water, 12 bottles of Budvar Czech beer, Pinot Grigio high-end wine, rice crackers, granola and muesli, Cottage cheese, avocados for salads, humus and wasabi, and for dinner, a pasta bar, another one of salads and one of sorbets for dessert. Lady Gaga asks for fried chicken and cheese that doesn’t stink; Bon Jovi, home-made chicken soup; Shakira always needs to have, always, a fruit bask that must include precisely three mangos, three Hawaiian papayas, six bananas and three peaches; the Rolling Stones only ask for two well-dressed people to serve the food, no matter what it is; Adele prefers non-organic honey and Beyoncé usually asks for spicy chicken’s breast, legs and wings. It seems slightly concerning to me that music depends on so many alimentary demands. Perhaps that’s why none of the aforementioned examples are part of my personal choices. I am more of an Alex Kapranos guy, the vocalist of Franz Ferdinand, the author of a book called Sound Bites, where he passionately recalls all the delicious food he has tasted while on tour with the band. Meaning, his only demand is to discover. To allow himself to fall in love with flavors he didn’t yet know. Of course, Portugal occupies a very important position there. But that’s now why. It’s because of everything else. These people with a touch of Anthony Bourdain, with avid taste buds for all things new and the histories that go along them, that is music to my ears.

Translated from the original, as part of Vogue Portugal's Music Issue, published in june 2021.

Nuno Miguel Dias By Nuno Miguel Dias

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